Treating people like people in American Gods
A few mild spoilers for American Gods here.
I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman last week. It’s great, and I highly recommend it: imaginative, funny and absorbing. I stayed up all night to finish it like a child with a Harry Potter. And it was only after I finished it that I realised Gaiman had pulled off something quite unusual. Obviously a book whose main characters are gods has many unusual qualities, but what struck me was rather more understated. There are a fair number of characters in this book who are not white and/or not straight and this is never an issue – as shown by my not realising until after I’d read it. Here we have representation of minorities in fiction that is not patronising, and does not substitute the character’s not-whiteness or not-straightness for personality (oh, here’s the BLACK character, and here’s the GAY character; the former is SASSY, the latter, CAMP; both are largely IGNORED). Could it be that Gaiman – a straight white male himself, don’t forget – can conceive of fictional characters who aren’t straight, white and male and treat them like people? Why yes, and this shouldn’t be difficult. It shouldn’t be extraordinary that we only find out some way into the book that the protagonist, Shadow, is mixed-race, or that Sam Black Crow is queer. Those aren’t spoilers, by the way, because they have nothing to do with the plot. It’s not a big revelation and it doesn’t feel like a heavy-handed effort to be ‘inclusive’; it’s just how these characters are.
This is strangely rare. I don’t mean to suggest that other authors are bigoted. The nature of what Gaiman writes possibly makes it easier for him to do this. For one thing, there are a lot of characters in American Gods: a larger cast allows for more variety. For another, with such outlandish subject matter, someone’s race or sexuality is hardly noteworthy. Doctor Who springs to mind here: the weirdness of a human in a relationship with a lizard, for example, makes the fact that they’re both female rather more unremarkable. In Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, humans can change their gender and physical appearance, making our concepts of sexuality and race redundant. Even so, more writers in all genres could make more of an effort.
Most Anglo-American fiction (and by fiction, I mean film and TV as well as literature) still works on the lines that the default person is straight and white – and if they’re a main character, probably male as well. This default is often betrayed by descriptions: Gaiman will say “He was a middle-aged white guy” or “He was a middle-aged black guy,” where others would only comment on the colour of that character’s skin if it wasn’t white. When I asked a friend what he thought of Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle he said “Everyone in it is gay!” There are a fair few gay characters in it, but I couldn’t help thinking his surprise was at least in part down to the fact that in most other novels, you might have one if you’re lucky.
Gaiman’s skill as a storyteller means that he knows that someone being gay, for example, isn’t the most interesting thing about them. In one chapter, we meet a gay Arab man who has travelled to America. Another writer would have had him fleeing his country because of his sexual orientation; in this book, he is selling his brother-in-law’s terrible souvenirs. His sexuality is not irrelevant to what happens to him, but nor is it the be all and end all of his character. It seems obvious, it seems easy, but so many writers fail to do this.
I can’t help thinking that this has something to do not only with the writer himself, but the audience he is writing for. Gaiman writes fantasy and sci-fi, genres read largely by geeks. And a lot of geeks are pretty cool on stuff like this: they’re not only accepting, they genuinely aren’t bothered at all by someone’s minority status, whatever it is. Natalie Zutter’s article here takes a good look at all the gay actors geekdom has taken to heart (although I feel her speculation about Hugh Jackman’s sexuality is uncalled for), and she suggests it’s partly because a lot of geeks have felt victimised at one point or other in their lives. I think that’s true: your stereotypical geek is hardly the school bully. Geeks are also interested in the big ideas and what someone’s got to say rather than who’s saying it. Some of the founding myths, so to speak, of geek culture are also based around equality. Star Trek is the prime example of this. A show so significant for the representation of black Americans on TV that Nichelle Nichols who played Uhura stayed on after the first season at the behest of Martin Luther King himself.
The world of geek isn’t entirely utopian. The flipside of all this is the nasty, vitriolic bigotry that sometimes seems to explode from the geeky corners of the internet. This seems to be particularly prevalent in gaming; I don’t know enough about different brands of geek to suggest why. This Cracked article takes a look at how racism and misogyny are often, quite literally and quite accidentally, coded into games. I don’t say accidentally as a way of absolving those involved: thought and effort about these things is necessary, not an added bonus. Comics are also notoriously backwards in some respects, although I think that is partly down to some rather squeamish and old-fashioned people at the top; when they go, things could change rapidly. And it is still a very straight white male subculture, which doesn’t necessarily feel welcome to those who aren’t, as discussed by this panel at Geek Girl Con.
Despite this, I think geek culture often shows up the mainstream in this field. The imaginative range of sci-fi and fantasy means they’re not constrained by our societal mores, but it also shows up how boring concentrating on the same old identity tropes in the same way can be. I also think writing for an audience that wants to be challenged and presented with new worlds makes these writers up their game. Geek culture may be seen as a bastion of man-boy immaturity, but in some respects it’s a lot more mature than the majority of the fiction we consume.
I’m in unfamiliar territory here, so if anyone wants to correct me in the comments, feel free. Am I being too nice to geeks?